The positive outcomes of innovation are well known but the dark side of public innovation has received less attention. What is the dark side and how does this affect public value?
A paper in Public Performance & Management Review maps the dark side of public innovation, Public innovation involves a range of individual, organisational and community risks. These are termed perverse effects as innovations can produce unforeseen negative consequences. Perverse effects fall into two categories: low public value and low public control.
The perverse effects are not coincidental but emerge from key aspects of innovation processes including risk, uncertainty and incomplete information. The challenge for innovators is to acknowledge the dark side and take measures to prevent perverse effects without killing innovation in organisations.
An innovation is broadly defined as the implementation of an idea that is perceived as new and results in change. Public innovation can involve the use of technology and changes in processes, organisations, services, policy approaches, democratic engagement and institutions. The key premise is that generating and implementing new ideas provides the basis for improvements in the public sector.
Public innovation can make the public sector more efficient, effective and legitimate. During times of fiscal stress, public innovation can enable government to do more with less. It is argued there is now an “innovation imperative” given the accelerating pace of change in society. Governments need to be flexible and agile to deal with changing technology, changing social environments and the changing demands of citizens.
Perverse effects are unexpected and undesirable outcomes stemming from public innovation.
The list of perverse effects of public innovation shows a great deal of variation. The variation can be understood using a model with two dimensions: public value and public control. Both are seen as key aspects of government legitimacy:
Public innovation can result in failure to strengthen the public sector’s value contribution to society. This dimension is paradoxical since the aim of public innovation is to realise this type of value. However, in implementing innovation projects, the opposite may occur.
Perverse effects in this category include:
Limitations to public control occur when public innovation is undertaken in the absence of administrative and political control systems and/or when integrity and accountability systems are relatively weak.
Wasting public money and corruption demonstrate a lack of public control, while illegal practices show an absence of public control. Innovation can also limit democratic control when tipping the balance of power and disrupting systems of checks and balances.
Failing to produce public value and the lack of public control result from fundamental features of innovation processes. Complete information about the consequences of innovation—and lack of innovation— are unknown from the outset. There is an inherent risk in public innovation decisions being made in an environment of uncertainty and incomplete information.
What is therefore needed is responsible innovation - a collective duty of care. This means rethinking what we want from innovation and then making its pathways responsive in the face of uncertainty. Key operating principles for the public sector innovator include accountability, veracity, fidelity, bureaucratic responsibility, respect for citizens, balancing benefits against risk and costs, and doing no harm.
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